He was a tenacious alligator. Nearly all his reptilian brethren are found well south of Tennessee along the Mississippi, shirking the cold north for the warm, brackish waters of the bayou. Lured by the distant promise of smoky meats, Gulf Coast oysters and fresh shrimp, he abandoned his boggy nest amid the cypress trees and hanging moss, fighting strong southerly currents, working his way past Memphis, Tenn., to meet the Ohio River in Cairo, Ill. Lumbering on, he snaked around speedboats and barges as the aroma grew stronger. Finally working his tired body up the banks, he skittered across Kellogg Avenue, coming to rest just outside SwampWater Grill.
Such was the fantasy evoked upon catching sight of the new Cajun restaurant’s toothy, concrete mascot and irresistible photo op. SwampWater Grill is located inside the same sprawling, shanty-like building that houses Riverside Centre Antique Mall. The restaurant is the brainchild of property owner Chris Ornella and partner Kirk Prest, who hails from Plaquemines Parish, La., just south of New Orleans.
Prest, whose occupational history includes businessman, outdoorsman, shrimper and oyster farmer, brings with him a menu Southerners would find right at home. An ample lineup of classic Louisiana favorites like jambalaya, gumbo, po’ boys and red beans and rice are paired with a selection of hardwood-smoked ribs, barbecue chicken and pulled pork.
The restaurant space hasn’t changed much — the rustic dark wood interior and warped hardwood floors will seem familiar to those who remember past tenants, but SwampWater makes good use of the abundant space, with a gigantic wood-burning fireplace near the bar and old whiskey barrels serving a second life as makeshift table bases.
Oyster basket decorations assist in the illusion that SwampWater is a ramshackle watering hole surrounded by Southern swampland.
We sat down to enjoy tall glasses of sweet tea and scan the ambitious menu. Resisting the temptation of a basket of smoked, bacon-wrapped and beer-battered jalapeno poppers stuffed with chorizo sausage and cream cheese (no small feat), we instead focused on the essentials: a half dozen chargrilled oysters on the half shell (market price), smothered in butter and garlic and dusted with Romano and Parmesan cheeses. The smoky, grilled aroma was deliciously infused with the oysters, evident despite an inundation of potent toppings.
Our entrées included the red beans and rice ($12.99), with two generous halves of smoked andouille sausage anchored in a bowl of red beans slow-cooked with onion and celery and ham hocks until the virtual stew is poured over rice, served with a slice of grilled French bread slathered in garlic. While the red beans by themselves seemed to lack seasoning, marrying them with the spicy andouille made a harmonious balance of flavor.
My Cajun Delight entrée ($15.95) offered a sampling of SwampWater’s signature items, including a flaky crawfish pie, a cup of a chicken and andouille gumbo and jambalaya. Our waitress fulfilled my request for a cup of the smoked 15-bean soup in lieu of the included house salad (why deal with lettuce when you can enjoy beans with smoked ham and ribs?).
The gumbo was richly meaty and complex, its dark roux base making it nearly black in the low light. The jambalaya, while overshadowed by the gumbo, was equal parts rib-sticking and satisfying, a subtle blend of spices enhancing essences of chicken and sausage. The crawfish pie’s buttery crust helped offset the inherent fishiness of its main ingredient.
We had just missed the Sunday brunch service on a follow-up visit but, undeterred, my girlfriend tried the blackened chicken sandwich with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and a side of mayo, while I steered toward the oyster po’ boy featuring cornmeal-battered oysters and the same toppings. Sandwiches come with a choice of one side item, though no self-respecting Southerner-wannabe would select anything but the roasted corn cheese grits.
Both sandwiches were served on large slices of French bread, mine overflowing with oysters, hers filled with a generous chicken cutlet. While the respective cornmeal and blackened seasonings were somewhat heavy-handed, our sandwiches proved fresh and delicious, their spiciness offset by the creamy grits. After a successful lunch, we walked off the calories exploring the adjoining antique mall’s many kitschy wares.
The gator was right: SwampWater Grill is worth the trek to Kellogg’s flood plain.
Go: 3742 Kellogg Ave., East End
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday;
9 a.m.-midnight Saturday; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday